Pac-10 Men’s Basketball: Players to watch

A list of ten guys to keep an eye on around the Pac-10, in no particular order (not including Huskies). The season officially got underway on Wednesday as UCLA crushed Prairie View A&M 82-58. The Dawgs kick off their season tomorrow with a matchup against the University of Portland.

1. James Harden, G, Arizona State. The 6’4″ sophomore turned down the chance to be a first-round pick in the ’08 NBA Draft and instead opted to return to Tempe for a second season. A left-hander with solid range on his jumper, Harden (pictured left) truly excels when attacking the rim and creating off the dribble. At 218 pounds, his plus size combined with above-average quickness makes Harden, an All-Pac 10 First Team selection a year ago, easily one of the frontrunners for Pac-10 Player of the Year. 2007-2008 stats: 17.8 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.1 SPG.

2. Darren Collison, G, UCLA. Another in a line of players who turned down the lure of the NBA to return to campus, Collison is now a senior and the unquestioned leader of the Bruins as they look to return yet again to the Final Four. At 6’0″, 160 pounds, the lithe point guard boasts exceptional quickness and complements his offensive abilities with a pesky presence on the defensive end. He kicked off the year with 19 points in the Bruins’ victorious opener over Prairie View on Wednesday, then followed that up with 16 points against Miami of Ohio last night. 2007-2008 stats: 14.5 PPG, 3.8 APG, 1.8 SPG.

3. Chase Budinger, F, Arizona. The Wildcats explosive swingman may end up regretting his decision to stay in Tucson with the departure of Head Coach Lute Olson. A 6’7″ junior, Budinger possesses extreme athletic ability and, at one time, was considered an Olympic-caliber volleyball player. Along with F Jordan Hill and G Nic Wise, Budinger comprises the core of the ‘Cats offense and will be relied upon to play almost every game start to finish. 2007-2008 stats: 17.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG.

4. Theo Robertson, G, California. An athletic 6’6″ swingman, Robertson (pictured right) missed all of the 2007-2008 season following hip surgery. The redshirt junior logged extensive playing time during his sophomore campaign in the ’06-’07 season, and opened up this season with 29 points in the Golden Bears’ exhibition victory over Seattle Pacific University. With All-Pac-10 First-Teamer Ryan Anderson now in the NBA, Robertson, along with fellow guard Patrick Christopher, should become the focal point of an offense that will struggle to put up points. 2006-2007 stats: 8.6 PPG, 4.4 RPG.

5. Michael Dunigan, C, Oregon. Dunigan is one of a host of players who has a legitimate shot at taking home Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors this season. A 6’10”, 250 pound freshman who possesses size and skill around the basket, Dunigan is a four-star recruit who played at the same high school (Farragut Academy in Chicago, IL) as Kevin Garnett. With only one legitimate offensive threat returning for the Ducks (G Tajuan Porter), look for the offense to flow through Dunigan as the season gets underway.

6. DeMar Derozan, F, USC. Were it not for the NBA’s age-limit rule, Derozan wouldn’t even be on the USC campus right now. Considered the #1 small forward of the 2008 class, Derozan possesses remarkable explosive athleticism and should be a more-than-adequate replacement for the departed OJ Mayo. Already being compared to the likes of Kobe Bryant, Derozan will team up with junior Taj Gibson to lead the Trojan offense. On an interesting side note, he committed to USC as part of a package deal that also brought in friend and high school teammate Percy Miller, better known as the son of rapper Master P. and a rapper himself, Lil’ Romeo.

7. DeAngelo Casto, F, Washington State. Many locals may remember Casto (pictured left) from his days at Spokane’s Ferris High School. The 6’8″, 230 pound freshman should have an immediate impact on the Cougar offense with the departure of team’s big three: Kyle Weaver, Robbie Cowgill, and Derrick Low. With deferent senior Taylor Rochestie running the offense, look for Casto to patrol the interior in coach Tony Bennett’s offense and provide a complement to center Aron Baynes.

8. Jrue Holiday, G, UCLA. The consensus #1 point guard in the 2008 class, Holiday is the younger brother of UW sophomore guard Justin Holiday. With a quick first-step and superior ball-handling skills, the younger Holiday should fill the void left by guard Russell Westbrook’s departure to the NBA. In teaming up with fellow point guard Darren Collison, the 6’3″ 180-pounder combines to form arguably the most athletic backcourt in the Pac-10. Look for Holiday to spell Collison at the point and provide another scoring threat to go along with the likes of Josh Shipp.

9. Jordan Hill, F/C, Arizona. The 6’10” junior picked up his game remarkably a year ago, nearly tripling his scoring output from year 1 to year 2. Hill also became a staple on highlight reels nationwide with his emphatic shot-blocking abilities as Arizona stampeded to the NCAA tournament for a 17th consecutive time. Hill will be counted on to up that production yet again this season, as the Wildcats look to fill the scoring void left by Jerryd Bayless’ departure to the NBA and cope in the aftermath of coach Lute Olson’s abrupt retirement. 2007-2008 stats: 13.2 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 1.6 BPG.

10. Jeff Pendergraph, F, Arizona State. A 6’9″ senior, Pendergraph (pictured right) has made slight improvements to his game in each of the past three seasons. An All-Pac-10 Third Team selection a year ago, Pendergraph will need to break out in his final collegiate season if he wants to make it to the next level. With substantial athleticism and an affinity to dunk every ball he can get his hands on, Pendergraph will need to take some of the pressure off James Harden, whose production slowed as the year wore on, in order for the Sun Devils to live up to their early hype. 2007-2008 stats: 12.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 1.6 BPG.

Friday’s notes

-From the good news department, the Oklahoma City Thunder have lost five straight games and are now 1-7 on the season. On a side note, the Thunder have dubbed their dance team the “Thunder Girls.” Really? You couldn’t come up with something more creative than that? How about “Thunder Bolts,” or maybe “Thunder Cats?” Maybe the “Claymates” would work or “PJ’s BJ’s,” even. How about the “Harlot Globetrotters?” There are just so many unexplored avenues here.

-In case you haven’t heard, Rick Neuheisel comes to town tomorrow with his 3-6 UCLA Bruins. Neuheisel, who was on with KJR’s Mitch Levy earlier in the week, expects to receive a mixed reaction from the crowd and issued a sincere apology to Husky fans for the circumstances surrounding his ouster five years ago. On a personal note, for those of us that have met Rick Neuheisel in person, it’s no surprise really that he’s returned to coaching this quickly after such a messy situation. Neuheisel has the charm and likability factor that colleges seek in head coaches. Given the opportunity, I have no doubt that you could put Slick Rick at a tiny rural outpost (like Washington State perhaps) and watch him turn it into a winner.

-The Husky Men’s Basketball team opens the season tomorrow at the University of Portland. Unlike last year when the Dawgs didn’t play a true road game until 13 games into the season (12 home games and 1 game on a neutral floor), this year they’ll be getting things underway away from Montlake. Portland is led by Bellevue native Luke Sikma, a 2007 Bellevue High School grad and the son of former NBA player Jack Sikma.

-Wide Receiver Courtney Taylor has been signed off the practice squad and will rejoin the Seahawks this Sunday when they take on the Arizona Cardinals at Qwest Field. Taylor was plagued by a bout with the dropsies when he was cut a few weeks back by the team. He was able to clear waivers and had been practicing with the team until the release of WR Keary Colbert earlier in the week.

Poll Results: Poll #1

We asked where you currently obtain the majority of your local sports news and in our first two days, 47 of you voiced your opinion.

Our five categories were as follows:

1. TV News
2. Local Newspapers (Seattle Times, Seattle P-I, etc)
4. FSN
5. Blogs

Surprisingly, despite a market that has seen newspaper circulation decline rapidly in recent months, local newspapers were the most popular choice for sports information amongst our readers with 44% of the vote (21 votes).

ESPN came in a distant second with 29% of the vote (14 votes), while Blogs finished third with 21% (10 votes), and FSN rounded out the results with 4% (2 votes). TV News received zero votes.

Beyond Seattle: Nick Swisher sadly acquired by Yankees

Welcome to Beyond Seattle, SSN’s section of articles devoted to topics of interest that extend beyond our fair city. Here at Beyond Seattle, we will offer opinions on topical sports-related events that are happening right now. As with all our articles, we want you, the fans, to be able to weigh in on the conversation as well. Feel free to voice your opinion in the “Comments” section directly underneath each article. Enjoy!

Former Chicago White Sox Outfielder/First Baseman Nick Swisher was acquired by the New York Yankees today in a trade that sent utility infielder Wilson Betemit and two minor-league prospects to the North side.

While such an obscure trade wouldn’t ordinarily cross our radar, the departure of Swisher–an entertaining, enjoyable goofball who truly loves the game of baseball–to the vortex of somberness that is the New York Yankees organization is a major disappointment for any fan of the game. Swisher may be approaching his 28th birthday on paper, but in spirit he’s a rowdy pre-pubescent kid who approaches his day job the way R. Kelly approaches junior high schools (had to get an R. Kelly crack in there somewhere).

The former Oakland Athletic turned Chicago White Sock has been known for his clubhouse antics, free-flowing hairdo, and unique facial hair designs in his five-year Major League career. In addition to his off the field behavior, Swisher has earned praise on the field for his all-out hustle and patient, studious approach at the plate. A former first-round draft pick of the A’s, Swisher is a guy who has dedicated himself to the fight against cancer in his spare time. He’s been known to shed his trademark locks every few months for Pantene’s Beautiful Lengths, an organization that takes hair and turns it into free wigs for cancer patients.

With the shift to the Bronx, all of Swisher’s habitual goofiness is at risk of extinction. If the medieval grooming rules barring facial hair (beyond mustaches) and imposing a maximum length on tresses of the cranial variety don’t subdue the affable lefty, then maybe the funeral-like solemnity surrounding the ballclub will. This is the very same organization that destroyed the career of a once-entertaining Jeff Weaver and removed the raucousness from a pre-Arm and Hammer-endorsing Jason Giambi. This is Steve the Pirate at the end of Dodgeball, cleaned up, mature, and very, very ordinary.

Hopefully the Yankees allow their new acquisition to be an exception to the rule. Let him keep growing his hair for a good cause. Let him carve artwork into his beard. Let him inject some life into a clubhouse of stiffs. Baseball is a game that is losing fans on a daily basis, and having trouble gaining new ones. The Yankees, for all their marketing success, are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Baseball needs more players like Nick Swisher, and the Yankees could use an attitude like his to spread some cheer throughout the team.

Give Julius the damn ball!

Julius Jones is not a complainer, but I imagine that if he was, he’d be bitching up a storm right now about his inability to tote the rock. Prior to signing a four-year, $11.8 million contract with the Hawks in the offseason, Jones was forced to watch ex-teammate Marion Barber steal carries from him in Dallas, despite the fact that Jones was considered the number one tailback. Searching for greener pastures, Jones came to Seattle with the expectation of being THE GUY, not just one part of a package deal. With the big contract and only career backup Maurice Morris to really challenge him for the role of starter (T.J. Duckett is locked into that short-yardage role, but can’t honestly be considered a legit starting option), all Jones had to do was be consistent at the start of the year to lock down his role.

And consistent he was. Despite the fact that MoMo started the season opener, Coach Mike Holmgren tapped Jones in relief and he didn’t disappoint, providing 45 yards on 13 carries, as well as 17 receiving yards on two catches. In Weeks 2 and 3, Jones went certifiably off, rushing for 127 and 140 yards, respectively, with a TD in each game.

Yet since Week 3, Jones hasn’t come close to equaling that production, nor has he been given the opportunity. Jones received 26 and 22 carries, respectively, in the two games he went off. Since then, he has received no more than 17 carries, which came in Week 5 against the New York Giants. Versus the Giants stingy run defense, Jones managed just 61 yards on those 17 attempts. He did so under tough conditions, however. The Hawks were on one of their infamous East Coast road trips, and the G-Men were able to stack against the run with a particularly weak Matt Hasselbeck (who was eventually removed from the game due to injury) under center. That unfair shake was really the last we saw of Julius until last week at Miami when he put together an 88-yard day with just 16 carries (a 5.5 YPC average).

Perhaps the most puzzling game for Jones came in Week 8 at San Francisco. The Niners were the victims of Jones’ 127-yard day in Week 2, but in Week 8 only allowed him to go for a measly nine yards. Coach Holmgren, however, may have been Jones’ biggest roadblock, allowing him to run the ball only six times that day. While the run game was stifled nearly all day long (a team total of 39 rushing yards), backup Maurice Morris was still given 11 chances at penetrating the Niners D, nearly twice as many as Jones. Morris, for all his efforts, only managed seven more yards (16) than Jones.

So I guess my question is, what the hell has Julius Jones done to piss off the coaching staff? He’s put together a few nice games when presented the opportunity, but he’s only been afforded that luxury a couple times this season. And it’s not like he’s some underpaid rookie; he’s supposed to be the guy to carry the ball for this team each and every game. Come on, coaches. Let’s get Julius the damn ball. He deserves it.

Is playing Hasselbeck the right move?

After missing the past five games with a back injury, Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck is expected to start this Sunday against Arizona. But is it the right call? The Hawks are more than halfway through a lost season and a loss to the Cardinals this week will mathematically eliminate the team from playoff contention. So what’s the point in playing a guy who isn’t 100%?

Sure, backup Seneca Wallace hasn’t done much to warrant confidence in Hasselbeck’s absence. But his supporting cast has been atrocious and Wallace has shown improvement. In last week’s game at Miami, Wallace completed 21 passes on 38 attempts and totaled 185 yards with one touchdown and zero interceptions. Compare that to the line of Dolphins starter Chad Pennington: 22-36 passing, 209 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT. The backup nearly equaled the performance of his counterpart, the entrenched starter, and did so under adverse conditions: 80-degree heat, high humidity, 10:00 AM West Coast start time, down a receiver (Deion Branch).

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a “Play Seneca Wallace!” shout out, but I just don’t see the point in risking injury to a franchise quarterback when the only two things currently at stake are pride and draft position. And frankly, I’d rather see this team finish 4-12 with a Top 10 pick instead of shoot for 7-9 with a mid-round selection. Let’s not ruin these dreams, Seahawks.

2008-2009 Husky Basketball Preview

With the season getting underway on Saturday at the University of Portland, it’s time for SSN’s 2008-2009 Husky Men’s Basketball preview. The Dawgs finished 16-17 last season (7-11 in the Pac-10) and ended their year with a first-round loss to Valparaiso in the inaugural College Basketball Invitational Tournament.

Who’s Back

The Dawgs return senior starting PF Jon Brockman, a 2009 Wooden Award candidate, who averaged a double-double last season (17.8 PPG, 11.6 RPG) and is the captain and spiritual leader of the ballclub.

Other returners include: PG/SG Justin Dentmon, Sr. (9.8 PPG, 2.3 APG); PF/C Artem Wallace, Sr. (3.2 PPG, 2.7 RPG); SF Quincy Pondexter, Jr. (9.9 PPG, 4.8 RPG); C Joe Wolfinger, Jr. (4.2 PPG, 40.4% 3-point shooting percentage); PF Matthew Bryan-Amaning, So. (4.2 PPG, team-high 18 blocked shots); PG Venoy Overton, So. (4.9 PPG, 3.2 APG); SF Justin Holiday, So. (0.7 PPG, 1.3 RPG).

Who’s New

Point guard Isaiah Thomas (5’8″, 180 pounds), a Tacoma native, is arguably the most-hyped of this year’s incoming players. Originally a member of the 2007 recruiting class, Thomas spent two years at South Kent Prep School in Massachusetts before arriving on Montlake this season. A prolific scorer in high school, Thomas backed up the hype with a 27-point performance in last week’s exhibition game versus Western Washington University. Other newcomers include: PF Darnell Gant, RS Fr. (6’8″, 215); PF Tyreese Breshers, Fr. (6’7″, 255); SG Scott Suggs, Fr. (6’6″, 190); SG Elston Turner, Fr. (6’4″, 205).

Who’s Out

A bulk of the scoring load will need to be distributed amongst the rotation with the departure of guard Ryan Appleby (11.2 PPG), a senior last season. Senior guard Tim Morris also saw his eligibility clock run out last year, while redshirt junior swingman Joel Smith transferred to Chaminade University in Maui, Hawaii. Adrian Oliver, a sophomore guard a year ago, left the program five games into the 2007-2008 season and is now at San Jose State University in California.

Coaching Staff

No changes on the staff this year as all the coaches return. Head Coach Lorenzo Romar enters his seventh season on Montlake, having compiled a 119-72 record at UW since 2002. The three assistant coaches are Cameron Dollar, Jim Shaw, and Paul Fortier, with Lance LaVetter as Director of Basketball Operations.

How they stack up: Backcourt

Though slightly undersized, the Husky guards bring a great deal of speed and quickness to the floor that opposing defenses will have a tough time containing. Starting point guard Isaiah Thomas (pictured left) has an explosive first-step and a knack for getting to the rim. Despite his short stature, Thomas has powerful hops and has thrown down in-game while in high school.

Starting backcourtmate Justin Dentmon has had a bumpy tenure on Montlake but spent the offseason working on his shot to become a reliable scoring option. As a freshman, Dentmon was counted on to distribute the ball to the likes of Brandon Roy, Bobby Jones, and Jamaal Williams but watched as that role changed over the following seasons. Seemingly in limbo between the 1 and the 2, the 5’10” Dentmon seems to have found his niche as an undersized shooting guard in his senior season. He kicked off the ’08-’09 campaign by going 4-6 from beyond the arc in last week’s exhibition against WWU.

Sophomore point guard Venoy Overton, a starter a year ago, employs an erratic but effective style of play that allows him to out-quick the majority of defenders he matches up against. If Overton wants to regain his starting spot, he’ll need to show some consistency with his jumper (25% behind the arc last year) and improve on his ability to finish around the rim in order to leapfrog either Thomas or Dentmon. Overton did post a team-high 45 steals last season.

Freshmen Elston Turner and Scott Suggs will challenge for rotational playing time early on and could emerge as zone-busters with their shooting abilities. Neither Turner nor Suggs is afraid to pull the trigger on a deep ball, and both possess above-average range and accuracy. At 6’6″, 190 pounds, Suggs will likely need to bulk up over the course of the season in order to handle the rigors of the college game. Turner has the bloodlines to be successful; he is the son of former NBA player Elston Turner, Sr., now an assistant coach with the Houston Rockets.

How they stack up: Frontcourt

Senior captain Jon Brockman is arguably one of the best power forwards in the nation and has the numbers to back it up. In his three years on Montlake, Brockman has averaged a combined 13.5 PPG and 9.2 RPG and has seen his numbers increase steadily with each subsequent season. If the trend holds true this year, we should expect a 20/12-type season from the Wooden Award contender.

Junior Quincy Pondexter is entrenched at the starting small forward spot for the Dawgs after coming on strong late last season. Though he has displayed flashes of athletic brilliance in the previous two years, Pondexter’s tenure can best be described as “inconsistent” thus far. Pondexter registered a career-high 25 points on two occasions as a freshman (against Arizona and Idaho), but regressed in his sophomore campaign, failing to eclipse double-digits in scoring average (9.9 PPG). With the departure of Ryan Appleby, Pondexter should be given a greater role in the offense and be allowed to create off the dribble more frequently, which is what he does best. His biggest weakness is confidence, however, and Pondexter will need to overcome his mental demons before he’s fully able to unleash his on-court physical prowess.

Sophomore Matthew Bryan-Amaning (pictured right) and redshirt freshman Darnell Gant are the two primary contenders for the fifth starting spot in Lorenzo Romar’s lineup, with Gant taking a surprising early lead in the contest. After starting the exhibition opener versus Western, Gant managed a mere four points in 19 minutes of action, while committing three personal fouls. Bryan-Amaning, meanwhile, came off the bench to score 12 points in 18 minutes of work while committing no fouls. Gant’s emergence as a starter hinges on his ability to do the dirty work, which Coach Romar has a fondness for, despite the fact that Bryan-Amaning is the more polished scorer. The combination of Gant and Bryan-Amaning equates to one very complete player, and the two should push each other to improve upon their weaknesses as the season progresses.

Freshman Tyreese Breshers, junior Joe Wolfinger, and senior Artem Wallace are wildcards. Breshers (shin surgery) and Wallace (knee surgery) are currently limited by injuries, while the 7-footer Wolfinger will likely see a reduced role out of the gate in Romar’s uptempo offense. Should Breshers and Wallace return to health, there’s a good chance they might not see expanded playing time anyways, as the run-and-gun style of play the Dawgs are looking to employ doesn’t quite fit their individual games at this point. If pressed into duty, look for Wolfinger to spread defenses and suck big men onto the perimeter to defend his long-range shooting ability; he’ll collect the occasional rebound as well, but is little more than a foul-prone roadblock on the defensive end. The 6’8″ Wallace has established himself as a grit guy the past two seasons, providing the rebounding and defensive intensity needed when Jon Brockman is on the bench. His inability to extend his shot beyond ten feet has made him an offensive liability, however, and he should yield minutes to Gant and Bryan-Amaning as a result. Breshers, for all his potential, might be in line for a redshirt season if he can’t play catch-up and get up to speed with the rest of the team.

How they’ll finish

The Dawgs could arguably finish anywhere between second and sixth in the Pac-10, but should be amongst the top four if their on-paper credentials play out in games. Their success will depend greatly on the ability of the freshman Thomas to run the offense and provide a heavy dose of scoring. It’s no secret that the Huskies of late have struggled when they fail to push the tempo, so look for the team to revert back to the days of the Brandon Roy-led Dawgs and run opponents out of the gym. Improved athleticism and quickness from a year ago should ease that transition and take some of the burden off Brockman, who should continue to put up consistent numbers no matter the style of play. If this team can put all the pieces together, there’s no reason why they can’t end their two-year NCAA Tournament drought and return to the true postseason for the first time since 2006.

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